Monday, December 15, 2008

thoughts on 2008.

The supposed purpose of the year end list is a hard definition to establish. Some might say that it leaves the person crafting the list with time to summarize their thoughts and reach some form of closure for that year. Others may view the series of lists we are confronted with in 2008 as simply a self induced fellatio designed for critics and users alike to simply show off their varying degree of musical intellect. In a recent post on his blog, 'Pretty Goes With Pretty,' Scott Tennent illustrated that the main issue with the year end list is the concept of trust. The users who are digesting these summaries are faced with the decision to either accept the fact that every critic is establishing a list simply based on quality rather than posture or hyped "outliers." As negative as that outlook is, to deny the fact that the internet and its inset music criticism scene does not fall back on cyclical hype records is simply foolish. For example Bon Iver's 'For Emma, Forever Ago' a pretty standard folk album that does little to diverge from the norms of that genre has been heralded by websites like as one of the best records of the year. The impact websites like Pitchfork have then had on user based sites like or can be seen as it has been included amongst many people's year end lists as simply just an "easy listening" choice. Albums like Lil' Wanye's 'The Carter III' find themselves popping up on numerous lists, but users are left to decide by themselves if this is because Lil' Wayne has released a hip-hop opus or because sites like Pitchfork simply feel the need to express their rap knowledge with the most common denominator. If I'm sounding holier than thou I apologize, as I have found some of my favorite artists thanks to websites like Pitchfork or, and I'm sure even my list suffers from the same issues that I am outlining. There is a point in all of this though. In crafting my list this year I found that I had little desire to actually rate anything, rather simply summarize the sounds and uniqueness of great albums I have encountered in 2008. While, I may be saying that Off Minor's latest record is clearly my favorite of the year I do want to stress that this list is just a reflection of this current moment in time. When I look back at my lists from the past four years I find myself struggling to understand how an album like Black Dice's 'Creature Comforts' found its way to be in my top ten release of 2004. It is obvious that in 2004 I was focused in completely different realms of music than I am now. In my eyes there may be very little real value in this kind of exercise except for myself. This is simply a reflection of what albums have impacted me the most over the course of 12 months. I guess as readers hear these kinds of statements they may be put off people from venturing into my list, and that's okay. I feel like this a selfish act and while I hope there is some value in it for readers, they aren't the reason this was written. As I look at my fellow staff reviewers' lists and the lists released by numerous other publications I find myself jaded and lacking belief in the intentions of this format of summary.

In a roundabout approach, I'm going to begin this '08 summary by reexamining my favorite releases earlier than 2008. 2006 was marked by stunningly unique releases like Kayo Dot's 'Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue' and surprising takes on old sounds like Comets on Fire's 'Avatar.' Some of my favorite records of the decade so far were released in '06 so 2007 in my eyes had very hefty expectations. While, I wouldn't say the year completely reached those expectations, I will say that my favorite artists in '07 tried their hardest. Pharoahe Monch's long awaited 'Desire' fully expanded the vocabulary of 21st century hip-hop records with tracks like the conceptual 'Trilogy' sitting next to verbal linguistic exercises like 'What It Is?' Tartar Lamb, a Toby Driver-associated project, released the minimal 'Sixty Metonymies,' which helped further establish the sound that was hinted at on Kayo Dot's 'Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue.' Finally, Time of Orchids released the insanely complex and accessible 'Namesake Caution,' an album that is clearly a milestone in the history of avant-garde rock music. Summarizing 2007's musical output as a unit revealed that current trends point towards bands mixing various genres in completely juxtaposing ways. The dynamic between light and dark or heavy and quiet has revealed itself to be the motif of the '00s and 2007 and my favorite releases of the year fully embraced these dualities. Other records on my list, like Oh No's 'Dr. No Experiment' and 108's 'A New Beat from a Dead Heart' proved interesting during that year, but as time has passed they seem to have lost their luster. My 2007 record collection seems transitional, with bands like Kidcrash still working in the grandiosity and "epicness" that '06 seemed to embrace, but adding slight changes. The sounds were being tweaked with, but a full evolution had yet to come. In 2008 I saw a shift away from this idea. The avant garde was still clearly embraced, but, using the aforementioned Lil' Wanye and Kayo Dot as two drastic but similar reference points, we would see artists striving to be more accessible and embracing the more approachable sides of their sounds.

As I illustrated earlier, the list that follows this summary is simply a reference point to ten records I most enjoyed records this year. I'd say in terms of quality the only record to outshine everything else would be Off Minor's 'Some Blood.' If I was to create an objective list of my favorite bands Off Minor would obviously be at the top and with 'Some Blood' they simply expanded on everything that makes them great. Lyrically Jamie Behar muted the self-deprecation and began to step into more philosophical realms. The band as a whole has amped up their performances to the highest point of technicality creating a dynamic and unparalleled hardcore record. 'Some Blood' ranks itself among my favorite records of all time and in terms of reference points; in my eyes a hardcore record hasn't reached the heights of 'Some Blood' since Gospel's 'The Moon is a Dead World'. Other hardcore related highlights included ex-Funeral Diner related ...Who Calls So Loud, who fully expanded on the post-rock idea of emo that have been worked in with emo in recent years. Louisville's Young Widows crafted the most impressive Jesus Lizard tribute since David Yow himself with their second LP 'Old Wounds.' 'Old Wounds' also helps explain the derivative nature of 2008. While, nothing new is essentially being done on 'Old Wounds,' the conglomeration of post-hardcore with the sound Jesus Lizard and Big Black established resulted in a record that had a really new feeling despite being made up of old ideas. Young Widows' 'Old Wounds' represents an album that is truly a product of the 21st century; it looks back and forward at the same time.

In terms of rap, the praise Detroit has received for years is finally matching the music of the region. Starting off with what is easily the best rap album of the year, Black Milk's 'Tronic' established the sound that the area has come to represent. To speak in rap stereotypes, the East has always represented the more serious side of the music with the West and South embracing the more accessible side of the music. It is telling then that the remaining compass direction of these regional areas, the North, creates lyrically impressive yet heavily beat-based records. In today's mismatching music environment the area has thrived with releases like Elzhi's 'The Preface' or Invincible's 'Shapeshifters'. Notable is that both of these albums were produced by Black Milk as Detroit has seemingly found their resident underground producer with the passing of Dilla. Other impressive rap-related releases came primarily from the hands of Madlib who has continually proved that he is the best producer in the genre. Remixing the classic Madvillainy resulted in one of the most creative and questionable records of the year and his work with Erykah Badu helped propel "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" to help revitalize the neo-soul genre.

Regarding the more avant garde elements of metal, 2008 saw lots of groups moving towards more accessible, or at least less metal sounds. Kayo Dot's 'Blue Lambency Downward' saw the band blending their previous sound with more traditional rock elements. The title track sees the Toby Driver-led group playing around with motifs that are clearly influenced by the '70s psych rock sound. Krallice, a black metal act formed between Mick Barr and Colin Marston, saw those two very abstract artists combining their talents to record what is probably their most accessible and melodic work. Mick Barr also released 'Annwn' under his Ocrilim moniker, an album built on the methods of minimalism mixed with the concepts of heavy metal shredding. Doom metal was punctuated by ASVA's 'What You Don't Know is Frontier' representing the full emotional power that can be put into a record of that genre. Out of Nadja's typical flurry of releases the rerecording of 'The Bungled & The Botched' revealed itself to be a impressive evolution of the band's sound with Aidan Baker no longer relying on enormous noisescapes for his catharsis, but rather taking a more varied route. In what was seemingly an overwhelming trend, all of my favorite metal musicians took a step towards the more accessible with their records this year and thankfully proved the metal doesn't always have to be regarded as a stagnant, one-dimensional genre.

Other notable releases include The Drones' 'Havilah.' 'Havilah,' like 'Gala Mill,' is an album concerned with atmosphere and subtle nuances. Lyrically, Gareth Liddiard has basically been unmatched for the last couple of years and tracks like 'The Minotaur' and 'Penumbra' continue to prove this. The band has harnessed some of their loudness and the album is certainly again much more accessible than the band's previous work. I am actually very surprised that the Pitchfork crowd didn't latch on to this record. Like Sun Kil Moon's 'April,' perhaps it is too serious or legitimate for the type of crowd who only rewards music that is for the moment. Flying Lotus, an artist whose debut '1983' I heavily praised in 2006, did catch on with Pitchfork audiences with his Warp Records-associated 'Los Angeles.' Flying Lotus streamlined the hip-hop out of his sound and while losing some of the power of '1983' his sound continues to prove one of the most refreshing in that gray area of electronic influenced hip-hop. Dual-minded Pygmy Lush played up their folk side on this year's 'Mount Hope' a fantastic lo-fi record full of endless anthems. Finally Fennesz's 'Black Sea' played up his traditional mix of noise and electronics to craft an ambient minimal masterpiece.

In conclusion, 2008 has come to be one of my favorite musical years of the decade. Of course with releases from nearly all my favorite artists that doesn't come as a surprise, but what has caught me unexpected is how drastically different many of my favorite band's sounds have become. Off Minor, Kayo Dot, The Drones all of these groups did giant adjustments to their sound and continued to prove why I hold them in such high regard. As in 2006, I find myself curious about 2009 as I have held this year in such high regard. Hopefully, next year will continue to show artists attempting to be more original rather than staying with the difference that made them established in 2008.

A special thanks to Nick Greer, Scott Tennent, gabbagabbahey, and bg5000 for help with the words.

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1 comment:

gabbagabbahey said...

you don't mention it here, at all, and you have one line about it in the Sputnik text, but surely Have a Nice Life qualifies for an outstanding, unique contribution to 2008 in music. it's not really my favourite, but I just thought I'd stick that in there.

for me, Shooting at Unarmed Men made a really good, novel punk and post-punk record, even if it's constructed from a range of existing sounds.

definitely got to get into Young Widows more. it's a bit heavy for my taste, but I can recognize that's it's good. the opening tracks are amazing.

I'll give Off Minor a listen, but I've never liked their particular sound so that probably won't change now. on that basis, ...Who Calls So Loud does it for me. It and Sinaloa, which I know you don't like... feeling over technique for me, always.

other than that, great list!